Mayor Joanne Yepsen urged voters on Tuesday to adopt a new charter that would change the city’s form of government.
In making the case for adopting a council-manager form during a press conference hosted by the city’s Charter Review Commission, Yepsen said the current commission form requires too much of part-time city officials like herself, who earn $14,000 per year — echoing the reasons she gave when she announced earlier this month that she would not seek re-election to a third two-year term.
Before the announcement, at least publicly, she had stayed neutral on the proposal, saying she had appointed the commission to review the charter because the mayor is required to do so every 10 years.
“You can't do it anymore, you guys — you just can’t,” she said. “So please, please, please spread the word. You need to look at this charter very carefully, and I hope you adopt change this coming November.”
The 15-member commission hosted an open house on its final charter draft from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the City Center, with Yepsen and several others speaking between 4 and 5:30 p.m.
The proposal, which will go before the voters as a referendum in November, would replace the four commissioners and mayor with a seven-member council, which would include and be presided over by the mayor. Council members, including the mayor, would serve four-year terms. The move would save the city about $466,000 annually, commission members estimated, by replacing four deputy commissioners and the deputy mayor with a city manager.
That estimate assumes the city manager would earn $125,000 per year, but the position’s salary would ultimately be decided by the City Council.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who is also not seeking re-election, agreed with Yepsen that the current form is limiting and the proposal would open the door for more candidates to seek office in the city. He said one reason for not seeking a fourth two-year term is that, “Frankly, I can't do it — physically, emotionally — I really can’t do it anymore.”
“I can't live on $14,000 a year, and so I practice dentistry at my practice on West Avenue,” he said. “And when I’m not on West Avenue, I’m at City Hall. After a while, it just gets to be too much.”
Mathiesen also said people don’t understand how the current system works, citing a conversation he had with a constituent in which he mentioned he wasn’t running for City Council this year. Under the city’s century-old form of government, Mathiesen helps make up the City Council while also overseeing public safety.
“They said, ‘City Council? I thought you were commissioner of something.’”
Ray Watkin, who served as mayor from 1974 to 1980, said he used to be an advocate for keeping the current form of government, but that was when the city had non-partisan elections that didn’t involve people running on a party line. The city moved to partisan elections in 1980.
“The commission form of government is quite unusual to begin with, and when you put partisan politics in it, it certainly poisons the water,” he said. “The form of government we have is strange. Most people know little about it, most people don't participate in it, the number of candidates that we have at this moment with the coming elections — there are very few.”
Those who do participate as commissioners work independently of each other, he said, calling their departments “fiefdoms.” He noted that commissioners have dual powers as legislators and department heads, which is “quite different than most cities have.”
“I read the charter that’s purposed, and I think they did an excellent job,” he said. “It's not perfect, but it's necessary to let people participate.”
A.C. Riley, who was mayor from 1990 to 1995, said she likes the idea of a city run by a professional, which the proposed charter change would mandate.
“If you look at our present form of government, what we're doing is electing department heads, and the only requirement is that you be over 18 and that you live in the city,” she said.
Sharon Addison, a city manager for Watertown, said she is in constant communication with council members — by phone, text, email and in meetings.
“My goal is transparency,” she said. “They know what I’m working on, they know what my department heads are working on, and I think that goes a long way when you’re trying to build collaboration and communication.”
Bob Turner, the Charter Review Commission’s chairman, said a couple hundred people attended the open house before 5 p.m. and that the group’s public outreach is just beginning. The proposal is the result of about a year’s worth of research and more than 50 meetings, he said.
“They don't have to come to us — we will go to them,” he said, saying commission members will be spreading the word at farmers markers, art fairs, festivals, and booths on Broadway. “This is a significant change that we are asking the citizens of Saratoga Springs to make, and we know that they want all the information to make an informed and educated decision.”
A copy of the charter proposal can be viewed online at www.SaratogaCharter.com.